Book note: Jan de Hartog’s The Captain

THE CAPTAIN by Jan De Hartog (1966)

I picked up Jan de Hartog’s novel, The Captain, by chance at a Little Free Library free book exchange in my neighborhood.  It is about a little-known (at least to me) aspect of World War Two, the ocean-going tugboats that accompanied Atlantic supply convoys.

Many of these convoys were merchant ships of nations that had been overrun by the Nazi German armies—French, Dutch Norwegian or other nations’ ships that were at sea when their home countries fell to the invaders, or that fled home ports to offer their services to the British.

The mission of ocean-going tugboats was to tow disabled ships into port, and also to rescue survivors of sunk and disable ships.  Usually they had little or no armaments to defend against German aircraft or submarines.  The Dutch historically were preeminent in ocean-going tugs.

Martinus Harinixma, the protagonist and narrator of The Captain, is a young Dutchman who has fled to England after the German conquest, and, despite his inexperience, is made captain a tugboat when its beloved previous captain dies unexpectedly.  

He has to learn the art of command by trial and error, while dealing with an exploitative employer, a British fleet commander with a grudge against him, and a resentful and difficult crew.

He has to walk the fine line between antagonizing his crew and seeming weak and indecisive, even when the situation is ambiguous and his knowledge is incomplete.

He is soon put on the lethal Murmansk run, sending war supplies to the Soviet Union to its only open port, which is north of the Arctic Circle.  

Casualties were high, and the novel’s characters believe the convoys were more of a political gesture than something of real importance to the war effort.  Then they become part of a strategic deception plan, which goes horribly wrong.

Over time, Harinixma masters the arts of seamanship and the arts of leadership, although he still makes one nearly fatal misjudgment, which is revealed at the end of the novel.  The stress of constant danger and little rest tells on him, and he nearly, but not quite, breaks under the strain.   Another character, an idealistic and naive young Canadian liaison officer, does break down and loses his life. 

Harinixma soon forgets the larger goal of liberating the Netherlands.  His concern is to protect the lives of his crew, the lives of members of the convoys and his own life.  He succeeds by reason of skill and courage, but also good luck.  

He comes to hate war, but without weakening in his sense of duty.

The Captain can be enjoyed as an action-adventure novel.  It is also a coming-of-age story, and also a story about how men react differently to the stress of war.

Reading the battle scenes is as near as anyone sitting in a comfortable armchair can come to understanding the reality of war.  Along with the horror, there is a lot of grim humor.


Jan de Hartog’s writing reflected his own experience.  Born in the Netherlands in 1914, he ran away to sea at age 11 and was brought back by his parents.  He entered the Netherlands’ merchant marine academy at age 16 and was kicked out.  He later worked as a coal shoveler for the Amsterdam harbor police and the skipper of a tour boat on the Amsterdam canals.  All the while he worked to establish himself as a novelist and playwright 

His novel, Holland’s Glory, was published in 1940, just a few months ahead of the Nazi German conquest of the Netherlands.  It was about Dutch sea-going tugboats, and their difficulties and dangers, and was regarded as an expression of Dutch national pride.  Although there was nothing in it specifically anti-Nazi or anti-German, it was banned by the German occupation forces.  

De Hartog worked in a part of the Dutch underground that concealed and found new homes for Jewish babies, in order to save them from the Nazi extermination camps.  He later escaped to England and served in the Dutch merchant marine, at first as a war correspondent and later as a ship’s captain.

After the war, he decided to remain in the UK and write in English.  Later he moved to the United States, and eventually joined the Society of Friends.  Although he is nearly forgotten now, his novels and plays were best-sellers and highly-regarded by critics when they came out.  He died in 2002.


Jan de Hartog Wikipedia article.

Jan de Hartog, 88, author of his own life.  Obituary in the New York Times.

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